German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party has suffered historic defeats in regional elections as voters reacted to her handling of the COVID-19 crisis.
The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) lost out to the Greens in the southwest automotive hub of Baden-Wuerttemberg and to the left-leaning Social Democrats (SPD) in neighbouring Rhineland-Palatinate.
Mrs Merkel has been in power since 2005 and will not be standing again at the federal elections in September following four consecutive national election victories.
The record defeats in the regional elections, only held in the two wealthy southern states and seen as a bellwether for September, is another blow for the CDU.
In Baden-Wuerttemberg, exit polls put the Greens at 37.2% with the CDU at 24% and in Rhineland-Palatinate the SPD led with 36.1% with the CDU getting 27.1% of the vote.
A face mask procurement scandal, months of lockdowns and a slow coronavirus vaccine rollout caused by supply shortages and excessive bureaucracy dominated Sunday’s elections.
The CDU’s support dropped from 40% last June, when Germany was praised for its pandemic response, to around 33% this month.
Over the past two weeks, several conservative MPs quit over allegations of receiving payments for arranging procurement deals.
There are also fears of a potential third wave of COVID-19 as infection rates have begun rising over the past few days after steadily falling since early January.
Since starting its vaccination programme in late December, only 7% of the population has received at least one dose, making Germany among the slowest in an already lagging European vaccine rollout.
Markus Blume, general secretary of the CSU, the CDU’s Bavarian faction, told Bild Live: “The election results are so bad that you can’t say ‘just keep going’.”
The SPD’s candidate for chancellor in September, Olaf Scholz, said the results showed a national government without the CDU and the CSU is possible.
Both the election results open up potential regional alliances of the Greens, SPD and liberal Free Democrats (FDP), who already governed Rhineland-Palatinate.
CDU leaders fear those parties could now gain enough support to leave their party in opposition at national level in September.
The results are also a blow to CDU chairman Armin Laschet, who was winning the race to succeed Mrs Merkel after winning the party leadership two months ago.
It could, however, give a leg up to the CSU’s Markus Soeder, Mr Laschet’s Bavarian rival to become chancellor.